We all have at least one friend or colleague who habitually loves to wallow. Nothing is ever right. The world is out to get them, and their glass isn’t even half full, it’s empty (most likely because someone else has drunk it, just to annoy them). Spending time with them is draining. They are so wrapped up in their own issues that they barely notice what is going on with you. They give complaining a bad name.
Whilst there is significant evidence to show that endlessly ruminating on negative events can have a detrimental impact on our mental health and our success, not all complaining is bad for us. In fact, as Dr. Margot Basin, Psychology Professor who studies communication between friends at the Belgian university KU Leuven explains, complaining is a natural part of being human and if we complain in the right way, it can be a very effective way of dealing with stress and anxiety.
Complaining can also have a powerful bonding effect with our colleagues, friends, and loved ones. Finding areas of shared misery can help us realise that it’s not just us who is struggling and that in a way, we are all in it together. Just as we don’t want to spend time with a friend who only complains, we also don’t want to spend time with friends who present a perfect view of their lives and the world. It’s just not real and our unconscious brain will pick up the disparity, making us feel uncomfortable and impacting trust.
The Tyranny of Positive Thinking
World-famous relationships expert Esther Perel draws our attention to the tyranny of positive thinking in her talk on the Joy of Complaining. When we have a culture where complaining is not allowed, a range of feelings will be suppressed or silenced and can end up festering and growing in intensity. If only positivity is allowed, it will be false, and people can easily feel undervalued and insignificant.
Dr. Kowalski professor of psychology at Clemson University points out that the unrealistic expectation that we should always feel happy, can make us feel like a failure when we already feel bad about ourselves – a double whammy.
To enable a balance in our lives, with healthy emotional awareness and expression, there has to be a place for complaining. It’s all about the nature of our complaining, the timing, and how it is responded to.
Why does complaining feel so good?
Complaining is a vital way for us to express how we feel, especially when life throws us challenges or doesn’t live up to our expectations. Putting our feelings into words – known as labeling – is an important stress response and lowers the brain’s threat level.
Even if the only person that we have to complain to is ourselves, just acknowledging the complaint can have a beneficial effect. A heartfelt ‘that’s been a rubbish (or choose your own description) day’ on the way home from work can help us to move on from it and recover during the evening.
Generally, we feel sad when we feel we have experienced a loss, anger when we feel our territory has been encroached up and anxiety when we feel under threat.
If we are not allowed to acknowledge these feelings, even to our self, it is hard to move onto the solution finding phase. Dr. Kowalski also points out that without acknowledging the difficulty of a situation or our feelings about it, it can be difficult to get to the root of the problem.
Research shows that being able to acknowledge difficult feelings has benefits for our mental health. Accepting difficult emotions rather than suppressing or avoiding them, improves our ability to deal with stress.
Of course, it is very important to remember the impact that our actions are having on others. We need to be aware of when our complaining is negatively affecting others. Complaining to a loved one, someone you manage or to your child, about their actions can have a negative impact on their mental health, your relationship and will often not lead to the outcome you desire.
Complaining is not a useful tool for changing the behaviour of others. Asking others to complete a positive action “it would be great if you could pick your underwear off the floor” works much better than “why do you always leave your underwear lying on the floor!!”.
6 Features of Constructive Complaining
So how can we complain in the right way so that it doesn’t lead to endless ruminating, whining or blaming?
- Label it – Become aware that you are doing it and name the action and crucially the feeling ‘I’m just venting because I feel …’
- Limited it – Make it time-limited. Unless we give ourselves a time limit, we might just keep going, gathering other historic injustices as we go along.
- Frequency – Notice often you are complaining. Are complaints the only thing that you talk to others about, is if forming part of your identity?
- Purpose – Understanding that the purpose of the complaining is to acknowledge feelings so that you can move on to solutions, enables you to stop going around and around in circles.
- Don’t Dominate – Allow others a space to complain in conversation, don’t keep bringing it back to yourself, as they will stop listening. Notice how your complaints are impacting others. Ask questions about how they are getting on, acknowledge what they are telling you without jumping to offering solutions. People often just want to feel heard and understood.
- Journal it – a highly effective way to get things off your chest is to write about them. The simple act of writing down your feelings about a difficult experience immediately lowers feelings of stress and anxiety. Then allow yourself to let it go.
As with any skill, the more that you become aware of using these steps, the better you will get at them. You will find that it will take less time to go from complaining to perspective followed by solutions or acceptance.